It has 260 missions around the world, more overseas offices than any multinational corporation and it is the lifeline for Britons in trouble when working or travelling abroad. Wherever a British national is they can expect some level of service from the Foreign Office.
Just as importantly for the UK’s travel trade, the FCO is also an essential source of information and guidance for travel agents and prospective holidaymakers as they set their sights on increasingly exotic, and culturally alien, destinations.
The recession is playing its part in luring British holiday makers to non-eurozone countries in the hope of getting more bang for their increasingly beleaguered bucks. This makes the likes of Turkey, Egypt and Dubai ever more attractive.
The problem is, many go there expecting the same level of tolerance towards British culture displayed by the likes of Spain and other European countries.
Last year’s arrest in Dubai of two Brits who had sex on a beach is a case in point, said FCO director of consular services Julian Braithwaite.
“For many British nationals Dubai looks like Manhattan in the desert, but it isn’t. There are local laws and customs and you will be prosecuted if you break them,” warned Braithwaite.
“Half of our time is spent dealing with British nationals who have been detained overseas. Most are detained for a short while and released, but some are detained and imprisoned for a long time.
“Many countries in Asia have far harsher drug smuggling laws. People in Bangkok can serve 30 years for an offence that would attract a couple of months in the UK. Some British people think the UK judicial system applies overseas and it doesn’t.”
The primary aim of the FCO is to prevent people getting into trouble in the first place. “Despite the recession, more people travel today than when the Berlin wall came down 20 years ago. We need to focus on prevention and make sure the simple cases don’t happen because once they get complicated things can go really wrong.”
The challenge for the FCO has not only been upped by increasing volumes of travellers – there is also terrorism and natural disasters to contend with. “Because more Brits travel there is more chance they can be caught up in a tsunami or terrorist attack. Hundreds of Brits can be involved so our ability to respond is crucial,” he said.
The FCO works hand in glove with tour operators on the ground who have crucial contacts with local police, hospitals and other agencies. Back in the UK, there is an educational job of work to be done through collaborations with key travel trade bodies. “We work with organisations such as ABTA and the Federation of Tour Operators and Association of Independent Tour Operators, particularly in terms of communications campaigns.”
When it comes to travel agents, the FCO understands there must be a balance between informing prospective clients about precautions and scaremongering. “We understand why they may not want to talk about the potential risks but even just encouraging travellers to take out insurance is something. They don’t want people to get into all sorts of trouble when abroad either,” said Braithwaite.
So how will recent changes to the selling of travel insurance affect the situation, particularly in the light of the recession and the increasing number of independent travellers?
“It’s something we are concerned about and something we think will become more of a problem. We’ve heard anecdotal evidence that fewer people are taking out travel insurance but we want research and if it is systemic then it’s an issue we shall want to raise more widely.
“The number of independent travellers is going up and they are not talking to travel agents so we are talking to the budget airlines to ask them to encourage people to take out insurance. The most vulnerable tend not to take out insurance,” added Braithwaite.
The FCO’s work has not been without criticism. In the past Tourism Concern has accused the FCO’s advisories – the advice whether to travel to a particular country or not – of being inconsistent.
When Bali fell victim to a terrorist attack in 2002, for example, there was a blanket ban on non-essential travel to the Indonesian island. Whereas when the September 11th attacks took place, tourism to the US was positively encouraged.
Braithwaite agrees consistency is paramount, but takes issues with these two examples. “We were not being inconsistent. The country advice we provide is based on our assessment of the threat level within a country and the risks to British nationals travelling or living there.
“In 2002, we assessed the threat level and the risks to British nationals travelling and living in Indonesia was significantly higher than for those in the US.
“The Travel Advice is based on expert advice that we receive from a large number of sources. The information we provide is designed to help British nationals make informed decisions about their safety abroad: the safety of British nationals overseas is our paramount concern.
“As you rightly imply, consistency is essential for the credibility and usefulness of the advice we provide,” said Braithwaite.
Tourism Concern concedes the FCO has since proved itself to be responsive to criticism and keen to receive input from organisations such as itself. Tourism Concern director Tricia Barnett said: “We have found the FCO is incredibly open to change. I was amazed when we challenged them. They said okay.
“We submitted suggestions and made recommendations and they took them up and turned to us for guidance. We have found them more open than any other government department – they do collaborate.”
Proof of this is the Consular Stakeholders’ Panel, which is held every six months and attended by representatives from the travel and insurance industries, including Tourism Concern.
Terrorism, natural disasters, increased international travel by UK nationals and the credit crunch all make for an increasingly challenging remit for the FCO. Despite this, for Braithwaite, his is a dream position.
“I’ve had lots of jobs in the FCO – I worked for Paddy Ashdown in Bosnia and was a speech writer for Blair – but I’ve never had a role that’s so fulfilling. You make a difference every day. It’s a people-centred business with lots of satisfaction.”